History of Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The Temple of Poseidon at Pape Sounion was built between 444 and 440 BC during the Golden Age in Ancient Greece. Ancient sailors and mariners believed that storms at sea resulted from Poseidon’s wrath, the Olympian God of the Seas, and with a temple under his patronage at Cape Sounion, facing the open seas, at the southmost part of the peninsula forming at the Province of Attica (where Athens and the Acropolis are located), they hoped to appease him and earn his favor for safe sea passages. This Temple, along with the Parthenon and the Temple of Aphaia, on nearby Aegina Island, consist the Sacred Triangle of antiquity. The temple of Poseidon was destroyed in 399 AD by Emperor Arcadius. Nowadays, many parts of the temple were taken and transported either in museums or private collections, with five column drums presently in England at Chatsworth and the British Museum, three in Venice and three in Germany (Potsdam).
Earliest signs of a temple in the area date back to the the Archaic Period (800 – 480 BC) in Greece, and a temple still under construction was destroyed in 480 BC when the Persian King Xerxes and his armies invaded Greece (notable historical events of the rea, the Battle of Thermopylae, Battle of Plataea, and the naval Battles of Salamis and Artemesium that decimated the Persian armies). After the war, Athenian leader Pericles completed the Temple at Sounion at around 440 BC, during the Golden Age of the Ancient Greece. Prior to the temple’s construction, the location was cited as holy grounds by Homer and Herodotus and signs of habitation stretch back to 2,800 BC. Due to its strategic point, it also served as a watchtower, guarding the passage to the Port of Piraeus. There have been rich silver mines in the area, and historically, silver mining activity whereby seems to have coincided with the construction of monuments and temples. In a sign of the historical importance of the area, at the top of an adjacent, but lower laying hill, there is The Temple of Athena Sounias, believed to have been built ca 470 BC. Only the foundation and remnants of this temple are visible today, which was believed to be a sanctuary (Greek: τέμενος).
The architect for the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion is believed to be Iktinos (Ictinus), whose most prominent work has been the Parthenon in the Acropolis of Athens. The marble for the Temple at Cape Sounion has been queried from the Agrilesa (Marble of Argilesa) at the Laureotic Olympus Hill, appr. 4 Km north of the Temple. The marble of Agrilesa was white and thin-rained, but it had a light ash-colored shade with, sometimes, ash veins; in contrast to Pendelikon Marble (used for the Parthenon) from the Mt. Penteli, the temple of Sounio does not bear the characteristic brownish covering (seen in the Parthenon) despite the great corrosion suffered, as Argilesa Marble lacks iron ions (that oxidize and render the brownish color), while the Argilesa marble's grey shades are due to the increased presence of carbon the transparency of the calcite.
The location and the Temple were first excavated in modern history in 1884 by Wilhelm Doprfeld, who was director of the German Archaeological Institute. Between 1897 and 1913, more systematic excavations were made by Valerios Stais. Archaeological excavations of the site in 1906 uncovered numerous artifacts and inscriptions, most notably an impressive votive relief and a marble kouros statue (Greek: κοῦρος, literary meaning “youth”, and kouros were nude marble statues of male youths), now shown in the National Archaeological Museum in central Athens. Additional artifacts are shown in the Mineralogical Museum of Lavrio, which is located nearby.
Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, Design & Architecture
The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion was rectangular, with a colonnade of Doric order on all four sides. The total number of original columns was 42 of which 16 columns still stand today. The style is “hexastyle” (“hexa” meaning six + “style” meaning column), in rectangular shape, and featuring six Doric columns on the front portico. The columns are made of white marble quarried from the Laureotic Olympus hill nearby. They were 6.10 m (20 ft) high, with a diameter of 1 m (3.1 ft) at the base and 79 cm (31 inches) at the top. At the center of the temple would have been the hall of worship (naos), a windowless rectangular room. It would have contained, at one end facing the entrance, a colossal, ceiling-height (6 m) bronze‚—probably gold-leafed—statue of Poseidon, who was usually portrayed carrying a trident, the weapon he used to stir up storms.
The Temple resembles the well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus located in modern downtown Athens. It is rectangular in shape and has a frieze that depicts the tale of Theseus and the Battle of Centaurs. At the center, just beyond the colonnade, is the hall of worship, a windowless rectangular room.
o Location: Cape Sounion, Province of Attica, Greece (appr. 45-minuted driving distance from modern Athens, appr. 48 miles / 77 Km)
o Period Of Origin: 5th Century BC
o Temple Architecture Type: Doric Architecture
o Site Elevation: 200 feet
o No of Columns: 42 (originally), 16 (currently)
o Name of the Architect: Iktinos (or Ictinus) (unconfirmed)
o First Excavation By: Wilhelm Dorpfeld, Director of German Archaeological Institute
According to the Greek Mythology, Poseidon (sometimes Posidon, in Greek: Ποσειδῶν) is a major god in the pantheon of the twelve Olympian Gods, with their seat at the peak of Mt. Olympus, Greece’s highest mountain. Poseidon was the second of the three sons of the Titans Kronos (Cronus) and Rhea; the three brothers were given command of the world, with Dias (Zeus) being the King of the Olympian Gods and in charge of the skies, Poseidon reigning over the seas and the waters, the third brother, Hades, was put in charge of the underworld and the dead people. Given Poseidon’s expansive realm, and his blood relationship to the king of the gods, the importance of his deity is well-established, and with Greece being an island nation and depending on the seas and navigation for trade and culture, the significance of Poseidon cannot be underestimated.
Poseidon’s symbol was the trident by which he kept control of the seas and the wild horses hauling his chariot over the seas. Ancient mariners and fishermen prayed to Poseidon to keep them safe from storms and shipwrecks and often left animal sacrifices and other gifts at the temple. In Roman mythology, the equivalent god was Neptune.
Poseidon is a metonymic name for the seas and waters, but also the marine and shipping industries. Many companies active in the marine industry have a name with a Poseidon word root. The world’s biggest shipping exhibition and marine conference—held on even years in … Greece) is evocatively named Posidonia.
Historical Significance of the Cape Sounion and its Temple of Poseidon
Aegeus (a.k.a. Aegeas, Greek: Αἰγεύς), the King of Athens, is believed to have killed himself at this location by jumping off the cliff into the sea. Aegeus eagerly had been waiting at the cliff at Sounion, the southernmost end of the peremptory facing the open sea, and looking out for the return of his son, Theseus, and his army. Theseus had been sent to the island of Crete to slaughter the half-man, half-bull monster of Minotaur (Greek: Μινώταυρος) living in the Labyrinth. In a forced peace arrangement between Aegeas and King Minos of Crete, Aegeus had sent off “seven Athenian youths and seven maidens” each year to be devoured by the Minotaur. Young Theseus volunteered on a dangerous mission to kill Minotaur, and had agreed with his father Aegeus to hoist white sails of his return voyage to Athens, if victorious, However, Theseus, in his joy and celebrations upon slaughtering the monster of Minotaur, neglected to take down the black sails and replace them with white sails, as agreed with father, upon their sighting by Aegeus, he presumed the worst and jumped off the cliff in his paternal pain. What is today known as the Aegean Sea (Greek: Αἰγαῖον Πέλαγος), the word has its roots to the Greek Mythology, and historically has been the cradle of the Greek culture, civilization and trade, although today it’s mostly known for the touristy Greek islands.
According to the Greek epic Odyssey by Homer, Sounion is the site where King Menelaus of Sparta buried his helmsman.
Sailors also believed that making animal sacrifices and offerings at the Temple of Poseidon would save them from Poseidon’s wrath and keep them safe from storms while they were out at sea.
At the foot of the cliff and the small bay formed, there have been artifacts of an ancient naval base including dry-docks constructed with huge, queried stones. Most of such artifacts are submerged under the waterline today.
o Having been built ca 444 and 440 BC., the Temple of Poseidon is almost 2500 years old today (hard to think what artifacts of our own civilization will still be standing up 2,500 years from now)
o Despite strong evidence—that remains unconfirmed though, it is presumed that Iktinos (Ictinus) was the Temple’s architect. Iktinos (Ictinus) was the architect of none other than the Parthenon (Greek: Παρθενών), in the Acropolis of Athens and also the Temple of Hephaestus (Theseion or "Theseum") located on the north-west end of the Agora of Athens, located in today’s downtown Athens area.
o The Temple of Poseidon is built on top of a previous temple which was razed by the Persians in 490 BC while still under construction.
o The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion originally had 42 Doric columns, only 16 are standing today. Four of these columns were re-erected during the 20th century.
o The British Romanticist poet George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (best known as Lord Byron) of the 19th century has engraved his name at the bottom of one of the Temple’s marble columns (an act that today would be considered vandalism). Lord Byron was a Philhellene who not only advocated for the independence of Greece from the Ottoman rule in the 19th century (in line with the Romanticism Movement of the era), but he also moved to Greece, financially contributed to the Greek War of Independence, actively fought against the Ottoman Turks, and eventually lost his life in Greece at a young age.
o Located on a steep cliff at 200 ft (60 m) above sea level, it offers imposing views of the local snaking coastline, islets and bays, and stunning views of the Aegean Sea. The site is world-famous for its captivating sunsets, especially as the sun reflects on the white marble column on the Temple. Very popular location for tourism industry, and during summer-time, the area becomes way too crowded to be truly savored.